writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 1)

The first spring after I finished grad school I signed up for a creative writing class through MSU’s continuing education program. There was a beginner class and an advanced class, so naturally I enrolled in the advanced one. I didn’t have any delusions that it would be like grad school, but I still had some expectations. But then came the second class period, the one where my professor stopped the workshop to give us a lecture on dialogue tags. I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, but it was something like this:

HIM: Don’t say “Tom yelled loudly.” That’s weak writing.

ME: *nods along in agreement*

HIM: Instead, find a verb that conveys both the weak verb and the adverb. Try something like “screeched” or “hollered” instead.

I didn’t say anything, having already (politely) offered a counter opinion to a few of my professor’s statements earlier in the class, and I didn’t want to be that girl, but if I had known in advance that this was coming, I would have saved one of my objections for this advice.

Screeched and hollered, you see, are still weak writing in most instances. I’m not even sure they’re an improvement over the verb-adverb combination. The problem, though, isn’t inherently the adverb, or even those words themselves: it’s in the dialogue itself.

Let’s take a look at an example:

“Good idea,” whispered Hermione, clearly pleased that Harry was calming down. “Ron, what are you staring at?”

 

“Nothing,” said Ron, hastily looking away from the bar, but Harry knew he was trying to catch the eye of the curvy and attractive barmaid, Madam Rosmerta, for whom he had long nursed a soft spot.

 

“I expect ‘nothing’s’ in the back getting more firewhiskey,” said Hermione waspishly.

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This example takes us back to the adverb problem—and if you’ve been writing seriously and engaging with other writers for even a minimal amount of time, chances are you’ve heard some form of “adverbs are bad.” I don’t agree with this as a rule (though I do thing a suggestion to be wary of adverbs is a good one), but this quote shows why adverbs aren’t always our friends. Read the above excerpt through once, then read it again, this time leaving off the last word so that the final dialogue tag just reads “said Hermione.” Is there any way you’re going to misinterpret her? Is there anyway you’re going to think she says it kindly, or angrily, or lovingly? We know exactly how Hermione sounds when she says that line, because JKR has written us some fantastic dialogue. The adverb, in this instance, becomes repetitive, and unneeded repetition is, to me, writing that can be stronger.

Now, I used an example with an adverb here, but the same type of repetitive mistake can be used with my professor’s “stronger” verbs. Take the line “‘I love you,’ she said sweetly.” It does the same type of thing. Unneeded repetition, unneeded details.

Unfortunately, the opposite of repetition can also occur when writing. Sometimes the dialogue isn’t strong enough to convey any real emotion and so writers use dialogue tags as a crutch.

My advice thus far has been to keep dialogue tags simple and to not have them either tell or interfere with the story, but the truth is, I do think there’s a use for these types of dialogue tags. I even think there’s a use for tags with adverbs at times, but I’m going to save that for next week’s post.

*Please note that I label these tips and not rules, and even if I had called them rules, I’m a firm believer that sometimes breaking the rules is the best thing for your writing. Writing isn’t about memorizing a set of rules and following them, but I do believe there are certain guidelines that, more often than not, will help writers improve—either by following them or by breaking them intentionally.

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